Hard at work!

As some may have noticed, we’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front. We bought another agency back in April, and have been paddling hard like the proverbial duck while attempting to look serene.

The easiest part of the process was doing the deal with my agent friend. She was great and furnished me with all sorts of information: spreadsheets of current licences, contact details, email addresses of royalty departments and so forth. Granted, the deal was on the basis that the agency couldn’t accommodate a large number of new clients – not with the level of attention we like to give.

What I’ve learned in the process:

1. Agents carry a very large amount of information in their heads. You think you’ve put everything down on paper, but it’s a whole nother thing to come along as a newcomer to this information.
2. Some people need telling twice. Some people are still trying to send money to the old agency. There will be people I have to remind more than twice, I can already tell.
3. You have to take the time it takes to establish good relationships. This applies to the new clients as well as new co-agents and publishers. It’s well worth it.
4. Change makes everyone anxious. Of course.

We’ve worked out who needs what tax forms, who’s writing what and for whom, and what money hasn’t arrived. It’s also been important to work out the new clients’ preferences in style of agenting, from the ‘professional only and don’t ask me about my new dog’, to the ‘I’d quite like an opinion on everything I’ve ever written’, to the ‘I miss old-fashioned publishing lunches and I’ll be really happy if we can linger till four in the afternoon talking about old friends and bad books’.

A few things have gone by the board lately, which we should apologise for. We haven’t been as responsive as we’d like to submissions, in particular. But everything’s now getting back onto an even keel. Still paddling hard, though.

Toxic conditions

Besides the toxic emotions that can afflict both writers and agents (paranoia, jealousy, self-loathing, encroaching unwillingness to bathe regularly etc), bad stuff can infect our relationships with each other.

One of the Hollywood agents I work with says he does the Cringe Test when considering a new client.  He imagines what it’ll be like picking up the phone to the writer six months from now.  If he thinks it’ll make him cringe, he politely declines.  As he says, ‘Represent in haste, repent at leisure’.

What makes an agent feel the relationship with their client has gone septic?

– They pay you for your advice but won’t listen

– They listen to your editorial advice, then spend twice as long justifying their writing (especially the self-indulgent bits)

– They don’t keep in touch often, and in the meantime write something you could have told them in a second couldn’t be sold

– They tell you about problems so late you can barely do anything to put it right (‘My book’s published tomorrow, and all my neighbours will be able to recognise all the libellous things I’m saying about them’ or ‘I met my producer at a party last night and told him all the bad things I’ve been thinking about him’).

– They nag you, even when they know you’re doing what they asked you to

– They find ways to waste your time

– They need constant affirmation, to the point where you feel like you’ve had to give them a pint of your own blood to get them back on their feet

What makes a writer complain about their agent?

– Failure to return calls, answer emails, tell them what the hell they’re doing with your work, or contradictory information

– Impatience when explaining important parts of your contract

– Obvious laziness

– Tendency to boast about more successful clients than you, or boast about important people they know in the business but have never introduced you to

– Preference to discuss personal matters or the football scores, rather than make a selling strategy or have a proper talk about a script

– Failure to sound enthusiastic about your work, ever

– Having way too many clients

– Sounding desperate, or spending too long moaning about the business and why they can’t sell your work

– Crying on the phone

I’ve been sacked for:

– Being a rubbish agent

– Not explaining something crucial (although it was plainly expressed in the contract that the writer signed)

– ‘Change your luck, change your agent’

– The writer got dazzled by another agent who said ‘You’ve never met [Head of BBC1 / Stephen Spielberg / Harvey Weinstein / etc]?  What is your agent doing?!’

– ‘It’s not you, it’s me’

– One kind man said he couldn’t bear to watch me worrying about him any more

Not all relationships are meant to last forever.  Sometimes you run out of steam with each other.  Sometimes there’s a blissful honeymoon period that suddenly ends in shocked disgust.  I love that the agent/writer relationship often is a long one – and it takes a while to learn to work with each other effectively.  I grieve over some of the writers I no longer have a working partnership with.  But I guess we’re all human beings, even some agents.

We are not data

I posted a link to an article about Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads, so it can snoop on people’s opinions about books, and market products to them they think they might buy.  This is thanks to data mining software, which can pick up certain key words.

The argument in the article is for the ability to talk about something without companies like Amazon listening in so they can sell you stuff.  Isn’t it possible to do anything these days without someone, somewhere, picking up information about us?  It does seem to bring us down to the level of being simply data.

It’s a symptom of the changes brought about by the internet.  You used to sell things to people by putting up a big poster, or sending out junk mail, for instance.  Pretty random.

So in theory we won’t see irrelevant advertising any more.  That almost sounds utopian, except it doesn’t mean we’ll see less advertising, and it feels intrusive.

But it’s the way marketing is going.  Publishers are getting readers’ emails so they can send information about books that might be of interest.  Readers sign up voluntarily – or, at least, interact with a website and surrender their email address, perhaps in exchange for exclusive content.  We have to register to see more pages of online newspapers and magazines.  Broadcasters and film distributors are doing likewise.

But registering voluntarily and being ‘overheard’ on sites that used to be authentic forums are two different things.  Marketing’s got personal.


Proctologists of the Caribbean

One of the challenges of a digital landscape is being discovered.  Betjeman’s ideal of people standing around the water-cooler discussing what they all watched last night on the BBC is long gone.  There’s just loads of stuff everywhere.

A current buzz-word is ‘bundling’.  We’re used to this in music concerts, where they slip something obscure into a programme that also contains known crowd-pleasers.  Now, books, programmes and films are being also sold as bundles.

With books, we had the old 3-for-2 deal at Waterstones, where you could make your own experimental choice.  Where we’re offered bundles chosen by someone else, what will they choose for us?  And – as agents and writers – how can we get our cool but less-well-known stuff included?

Two possible answers are: write stuff that is quite like something else (‘If you enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll love Proctologists of the Caribbean!’).  Or, write something cult-y (‘We’ve got to sell this somehow!’).

This may be idealistic of me, but I think it’s got to come down to good writing.  If a producer, publisher, sales agent or retailer is going to think about what to bundle something with, they’re going to choose something they feel deserves a wider audience.

Time will tell…bundles